A secretive team of US military technologists has tested a new kind of tiny smart drone that can deploy in swarms from supersonic jet fighters.
The test of 103 so-called "Perdix" drones took place in October 2016 at a military test range in California. But it wasn't until January 9, 2017 that the Pentagon finally revealed the trial to the public.
The Perdix practice-run represented "one of the most significant tests of autonomous systems under development by the Department of Defense," the Pentagon stated.
The military hopes that the Perdixes or similar drones will one day accompany manned fighters into battle. The propeller-driven, winged robots, each the size of a beer can and weighing just one pound, could fly ahead of human pilots, scouting for targets, distracting enemy forces or even attacking targets on their own.
"It's a huge deal, not just for the future of war, but for robotics overall," Peter W. Singer, author of Wired for War, told Motherboard.
Perdix is a pet project of the Defense Department's Virginia-based Strategic Capabilities Office, a small, secretive, team—numbering just a few dozen scientists, engineers and managers—that Defense Secretary Ash Carter set up in 2012.
"We don't have to develop fundamentally new weapons," physicist William Roper, the office's director, told The Washington Post in March 2016. "But we have to work the integration and the concept of operation. And then you have a completely new capability, but you don't have to wait long at all."
Students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology invented the original version of the Perdix drone in 2011, intending the small unmanned aerial vehicle to support environmental monitoring. The Strategic Capabilities Office took notice and adopted the robot design in 2013. The military has spent just a few tens of millions of dollars on Perdix, so far—much less than the cost of one new manned fighter.
Perdix's first military test took place over Alaska in June 2015. An Air Force F-16 fighter flying at 430 miles per hour deployed a Perdix from its countermeasures-dispenser, a cluster of tubes that normally contain ejectable flares and radar-fooling metallic chaff.
All of the US military's roughly 3,000 fighters feature these dispensers—meaning that, in theory, all 3,000 fighters are potential hosts for Perdix drones.
Once deployed, a Perdix flutters toward the ground trailing a parachute. After a few seconds, the parachute separates from the drone and the robot's wings—which fold against its body for storage —pop outward. The Perdix's motor fires up, driving the tiny machine forward.
Testers launched Perdixes a total of 72 times during the Northern Edge war game in June 2015. The October 2016 test over the China Lake testing range in California was much more ambitious. Three Navy F/A-18 fighters flying in formation released 103 Perdixes at once.
The drones "demonstrated advanced swarm behaviors such as collective decision-making, adaptive formation-flying and self-healing," the Defense Department announced. In other words, they behaved much like a swarm of insects.
And like a swarm of insects, the Perdixes had no "leader." "Due to the complex nature of combat, Perdix are not pre-programmed synchronized individuals," Roper said in the Pentagon's official statement. "They are a collective organism, sharing one distributed brain for decision-making and adapting to each other like swarms in nature."
"Because every Perdix communicates and collaborates with every other Perdix, the swarm has no leader and can gracefully adapt to drones entering or exiting the team," Roper added.
If the military chooses to adopt Perdix for frontline use, the tiny drone could complement manned planes and larger drones in a wide range of missions. It could be a spy—swarming with its siblings over enemy territory, scanning with diminutive sensors. It could be a self-sacrificing decoy meant to distract enemy defenses.
More chillingly, a swarm of Perdixes—each fitted with a tiny warhead—could strike potentially hundreds of targets at a time in a small area. Like a smart version of the military's controversial cluster bomb.
But the military's work on Perdix has implications beyond war-making. "There are two very different directions that autonomy will head, with their parallels in nature," Singer explained. "One is where the intelligence is packed into one thing and it makes all its decisions on its own. Think how a person operates. This is what you see with things like large drones taking off from aircraft carriers or cars and 18-wheelers turned driverless."
"The other direction is where each part of a system is not all that smart on its own, but the network of them can do intelligent tasks," Singer continued. "In nature think how each ant is not all that smart, but they do amazing things together. That's what you have here with robotic swarming. And the tasks that they take on might be anything from gathering intelligence to delivery of goods or delivery of weapons."
The armed forces are taking steps to transform Perdix into a frontline weapon. The Strategic Capabilities Office is already looking for companies that can manufacture the drones in batches of 1,000, the Pentagon stated.
But for all its promise, the Perdix program could still fail. Small, cheap and the product of a fast-moving, innovative team, Perdix is the very opposite of most military tech-development efforts. That makes it vulnerable to mismanagement.
"The biggest risk is that senior leaders will recognize the value and importance of this project, then decide to 'help' it by adding a lot of funding, people, complexity, etc., and rolling it into the acquisition bureaucracy," Dan Ward, a former Air Force officer and author of The Simplicity Cycle, told Motherboard.
"That would remove many of the things that made it succeed in the first place," Ward warned.
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